Pushing the Possible

– Posted in: Book reviews, Vegetables
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When growing food, the greatest obstacle a cold climate presents to the gardener is the short growing season. In a classic example of great minds thinking alike, here are two books that address that obstacle with similar approaches. All of the authors live in New England and were influenced by Scott and Helen Nearing and French intensive gardening methods. Both books have a two-pronged approach: use devices to moderate the climate and extend the season, and focus on growing vegetables that can live with cooler temperatures and low light requirements. Published in 1994, Solar Gardening: Growing Vegetables Year-Round the American Intensive Way by Leandre and Gretchen Vogel Poisson is the more technical of the two books, not too surprising given that Leandre is an industrial designer by training. (He designed the Grey Poupon mustard jar.)

The book is divided into four parts. The first part describes their motivation for extending the growing season, traces the development of their solar appliances, and outlines the basics of their approach. The second part gets into the nitty-gritty of how their system works and is a primer on organic gardening as well. Part Three shows you how to build the solar cone, the solar pod, the pod extender and the drop frame. The solar cone is like a three-foot wide cloche, and the solar pod with its extender is a glorified cold frame. They make use of a fiberglass glazing material called Sunlite and dimensional lumber. Tips on growing over ninety garden vegetables comprise the fourth part of the book.

Eliot Coleman’s Four-Season Harvest: Organic Vegetables from Your Home Garden All Year Long was first published in 1992 under a slightly different name, and later revised and expanded in 1999. (I am reviewing the earlier edition.) Coleman’s approach is closer to that of the gourmand than the zealot. He seems more concerned with eating the best-tasting food possible with the least trouble and expense than with the best way to save the planet. Consequently his “appliances” seem more approachable and doable, though I have no idea if in the end they are any easier or cheaper to construct than what the Poissons propose. Coleman’s two structures are tunnels and coldframes. The tunnels are essentially hoophouses, except that Coleman has devised a movable one, where it is erected on tracks and slid over more than one location in the garden. In the winter it is over the cold weather crops to keep them from freezing, and in the summer it is over the crops needing the most heat (think melons).

Coleman’s book is organized along similar lines to the Poissons’ book, but his marketing instincts are better. In his first chapter, which outlines the basic principles, the subheadings are: “Getting Started,” “Celebrating Variety and Seasonality,” “The Inviting Garden,” “The Spacious Garden,” “The Guilt-Free Garden,” and “The Organic Garden.” As the reader, I haven’t done anything more than scan the Table of Contents and I’m already half-persuaded. The next three chapters are his organic gardening primer, with an eye, of course, to how the season will be extended. Following that are two chapters on the season extenders themselves–constructing and then using them. A chapter on storing vegetables is next. Coleman relies on root cellaring almost exclusively; the Poissons do a lot of canning as well. After a brief chapter on pests (which mostly discusses why he doesn’t have many), the final chapter is an encyclopedia of vegetables similar to what is found in the Poissons’ book.

Neither book advocates a heated greenhouse. Both rely on bringing the hardiest vegetables to just shy of maturity before the darkest, coldest part of the year and then keeping them in harvestable condition through the use of some kind of protection. They both also aim to start sowing earlier in the season by using that same protection. Both expand the definition of hardy vegetable beyond our traditional understanding, utilizing the cuisine of many cultures, and both endorse the concept of eating what’s in season. Both insist that over the course of a year, their method is less work than traditional garden management. Neither book is for the casual grow-a-few-tomatoes kind of gardener, however. The method advocated by both books requires comprehensive planning and a long-term commitment to harvesting as well as an imaginative approach to cooking. And if you’re not very handy, you’ll have to adapt this method to whatever commercially made structures you can get your hands on, no matter which book you use. That said, if you are committed to “eating local” as much as possible, this method is perfectly suited to that goal.

So which one should you get? Ideally, you’d get both. That way you could compare and contrast their planting schedules and borrow the best ideas from both books to synthesize a method that works best for you. However, Coleman’s book is less intimidating and–let’s face it–less expensive. And you gotta love a guy who thinks of vegetable gardening as a great adventure:

These are not all the known winter crops, but they are the ones with which I have experience. They provide a fabulous winter feast as is, but they will have more company in the future. Keep pushing the possible. There are many other crops for you to discover.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In the end, this may be the most important thing about frost: Frost slows us down. In spring, it tempers our eagerness. In fall, it brings closure and rest. In our gotta-go world–where every nanosecond seems to count–slowness can be a great gift. So rather than see Jack Frost as an adversary, you could choose to greet him as a friend.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

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Ottawa Gardener February 1, 2007, 4:21 pm

Add the 12 Month Gardener to the list of books by Jeff Ashton. I found him to be very readable and frugal. He has his own structure – de rigour? – the stoop house.

Love your blog

Kathy Purdy December 15, 2006, 9:29 pm

Coleman is very readable, but I would still try to read Poisson, even if through the library. He also devised a solar powered food dryer, which I thought could be very handy. Plans for that were not in the book, however.

Kim (Blackswamp_Girl) December 15, 2006, 9:13 pm

What a great review… I’ve picked up Coleman’s book several times when I had coupons/gift certificates, but I never actually bought it. Now I feel like I must–and before I plant next year’s garden, so I can plan ahead.

Kathy Purdy December 13, 2006, 3:18 pm

Thank you, Carol. One thing that intrigued me was that neither book seemed aware of the work of the other, even though they were published at about the same time, by the same publisher. Of course, Eliot Coleman has since revised his book, so perhaps he does acknowledge Poisson’s work in the newer edition.

Carol December 13, 2006, 12:38 pm

Kathy, great review of both books. I had previously put Coleman’s book on my “wish list” for Christmas, so hopefully, I’ll be reading it in January/February and figuring out what I can do in my own vegetable garden to extend the season and maybe start a little earlier than usual.